Kendrick Lamar ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ – Review

12 Apr

On 2012’s breakthrough album ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, Kendrick Lamar introduced himself as a Hip Hop artist with a director’s eye for image and detail. His songs formed an autobiographical ‘slums to stardom’ narrative about the young rapper’s early life, that was cinematic in scope and style. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly doubles up on the breadth and ambition of ‘Good Kid’ by starting a thought-provoking discussion about fame, desire, faith, race and doubt. ‘Good Kid, Maad City’ was presented as a ‘short film’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is undoubtedly a blockbuster in its own right.

This album is about the education of Kendrick Lamar. It’s a tangled web of complexities, anxieties and contradictions that is unknotted with honesty and conviction. This is a man who entered the Rap business to escape the Ghetto, but is ultimately still trapped there – ‘institutionalised, for both better and worse. Rap gave him an escape but also condemned him to a life of sin and temptation. Rap is also the very thing that saves him, and brings him home. He spends all of ‘Momma’ telling us that he knows ‘everything’, a typical Hip Hop boast that is taken to the poetic extreme through hyperbole and repetition, but ends with Kendrick accepting that that he actually knows ‘nothing’. Lamar asks to be saved, asks to be redeemed, looks to God and believes that everything will be alright in the end. ‘My rights, my wrongs – I write ’til I’m right with God’.

It’s difficult to remember an album as carefully developed as this one. Interspersed between the songs are extracts from a poem, that is revealed to the listener, line by line, with each extract carefully relating to the song that follows it. And so while the album lacks an excplicit concept, there is this central artistic device that smartly allows Kendrick to dive in to different subjects and themes.

On ‘u’ he speaks to himself in third person, filled with self-hatred, trying to better himself but struggling. ‘Loving you is complicated.’ near the album’s finale he realises that love comes from within, and so ‘u’ gets flipped to ‘i’, a declaration of self-belief. That’s one way in which the album can be read, as a story of slow realisation and redemption. Along the way Lamar dissects questions of Race and faith in such astonishing detail that I can’t even begin an analysis here. Characters arise and disappear, each with their own baggage, adding to the story; the Spanish-speaking maid who witnesses Lamar’s mental breakdown in a hotel room, the South African beggar who turns out to be God, the small child who resembles a young Kendrick Lamar and reminds him of his roots, Snoop Dog, 2Pac, Nelson Mandela, various family members with their differing beliefs and wants. Lamar mixes the profound and the profane, the big ideas with small details and he interacts with both the rich and the poor, the superstars and the homeless.

Musically this is the most adventurous and open-minded record I’ve heard in a long time. It weaves together free Jazz, Prince Pop, 90’s girl-group r&b, Sly Stone funk, psychedelia and even a Sufjan Stevens sample. It comes over like a more twisted take on Andre 3000’s ‘The Love Below’ without any of the killer pop moments. Which isn’t to say that ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is difficult or hook free, it’s just that the hooks are more subtle, the grooves more subversive and the melodies less repetitive. If lead single ‘i’ suggested a turn to a more radio friendly, retro soul-sample sound then it was a brilliant red herring. Likewise the trap influenced ‘Blacker the Berry’ is equally unrepresentative of  a record that makes no other concessions to the hip hop styles and sounds of 2015. But it’s all the better for it. The album submerges the listener in a sound that is warm, rich and, crucially, alive. A backing band of super talented musicians support Kendrick on most of the songs, which means that ‘To pimp a butterfly’ would be a rewarding album even without Kendrick’s rapping.

But consider the rapping for just a second – and not what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. On a technical level, Kendrick Lamar has to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. His rhyming on ‘For Free’ is unprecedented in its ingenuity, ferocity and breathless delivery. His pauses are perfectly timed, his flow is diverse and adaptable, his tone is rich and emotive and he has excellent control of pace. Even when the subject matter is trite or crude (trite, rarely, crude, often) you have to admire his sheer skill and versatility as a rapper. If there were a Hip Hop olympics, Kendrick would be winning gold for both the 100 meters and the marathon.

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ ends with ‘Mortal man’, a typically strange and surreal track in which it is eventually revealed that the poem that has been read throughout the album is actually being addressed to Tupac Shakur’. After reciting the poem again, Lamar asks Tupac a series of questions, including one about how he managed to keep his sanity. There is no real answer because, of course, Tupac is dead. The silence at the end of the conversation feels ominous, with Lamar asking ‘Pac, Pac, Pac?’ If penultimate track ‘i’ seemed to offer a solution and uplift, then ‘Mortal Man’ piles on more doubt and more questioning. There is no happy ending, just a lot to meditate on.

9.5/10

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